Rocking the Volcano - The New Indian Express

Rocking the Volcano

Published: 06th April 2014 06:00 AM

Last Updated: 05th April 2014 12:17 PM

I’m standing on the crest of a volcano, a 45-degree slope of sharp rock granules plunging from beneath my feet. I’m expected to toboggan down this slope at speeds of anything up to 90kms/hr on a piece of plywood. All I can think is: “How on Earth did I let Cameron talk me into this?”

Cameron had, like any smart travel companion, played to my weaknesses: the promise of getting out into the middle of nowhere, getting a little bit dirty, and experiencing something I’d never done before – being up close to a live volcano.

Cerro Negro is in the Cordillera de los Maribios mountains in Nicaragua, Central America. The volcano is about 10 kilometres from Malpaisillo, the nearest village, and an hour’s drive from León, the country’s second biggest city.

Meaning Black Hill in Spanish, Cerro Negro is so named due to the volcano’s dark, gravely basaltic cinder cone which contrasts with the surrounding verdant landscape. It is the youngest volcano in Central America, having first appeared in 1850. Despite its youth, Cerro Negro has been one of the most active volcanoes in Nicaragua, erupting 23 times, most recently in 1999. Today, however, the volcano seems deep in sleep, only emitting a sulphurous wheeze from the depths of its crater.

Still, I felt a slight undertone of tension in the air among my 14 fellow volcano-boarders as we met at 9am at Big Foot hostel, which arranges the Cerro Negro volcano boarding expeditions, in central León. The hostel was set up in 2004 by Australian tour guide Daryn Webb, who had grown up sandboarding in Queensland. He recognised the dune-like slope of the volcano wall and began experimenting with sledding vessels – everything from picnic tables to a minibar fridge – until he settled on his own design: plywood reinforced with metal and coated underneath with Formica to decrease resistance and increase speed.

With the sled perfected, volcano boarding became the world’s latest adventure sport; León was at the time probably the only place in the world where one could slide down the side of an active volcano. Since then, more than 15,000 people have sped down Cerro Negro’s exterior wall; Cameron was dead set on adding our names to the list.

So we clambered into the back of the bright orange monster truck for the ride to Cerro Negro National Park. The roads were narrow and bumpy, thick with ash from the last eruption. A couple of times trees had drooped across the narrow road so the driver lifted the manhole cover on the truck cabin, climbed out, and chopped the branches down with the machete he had tucked into his belt. Finally, we could see the black dome reaching up to about 730 metres above us (the height varies with each eruption, experts say).

Our guide, a handsome Brazilian named Gabriel, handed us each a canvas bag containing a protective jumpsuit and goggles as we jumped from the truck, and allocated us each a sled. We had our own water with us – the heat from the volcano, the Nicaraguan sun, and the warm breeze we had been warned when booking the expedition (US$25 for the experience, US$5 to enter the park) would all add up to thirsty conditions.

The walk up started on big boulders that took some concentration to manoeuvre through, before eventually turning to gravel, making the climb easier. After about 45 minutes of looping in an arc round the back of the volcano, we dropped down into the crater. The scene was otherwordly: bulbous rocks in brown, yellow, pink, orange and white stacked up in walls; clouds of sulphur rising up from fissures between white and brown layers of earth. The rock in places felt hot to the touch, a reminder of the forces at play underneath our feet. Our route then led us up the opposite interior slope of the crater to the crest, where we would toboggan down.

And here we are, 15 of us gathered around Gabriel as he runs through procedures for the descent – how to balance, steer and control speed.

“Whatever you do, don’t try to balance or slow down with your hands,” says Gabriel, his smile looking increasingly, to me, like a grimace. “The rock is like sandpaper. You will have no skin left.”

When he asks if anyone is going to attempt to beat the record of 90 km/hr, most of the women (including me) snort in a mixture of terror and disbelief, but Cameron and two 20-something German brothers say they will give it their best shot. Gabriel grins, slaps them on the back and wishes them well.

“You’ll have to wait, though, it’s ladies first on this volcano.”

A couple of women reluctantly agree to go first, and sit down on their boards. “Goggles! Goggles!” shouts Gabriel as Mara almost forgets to pull the shades resting on her forehead over her eyes. Then they are off, screaming, clouds of black dust rising up from behind them.

I can’t take the waiting any longer and put my sled next in line. I sit down, pressing my feet into the board, holding on to the steering rope. The sled starts sliding, and I reach out to steady myself with my right hand. I can feel the gritty rocks scratch my skin and I yank my hand back. I use my feet on either side of the board to slow my speed. Gravel bits fly up into my face and into my mouth. The sled is shaking, rocking from side to side, but I’m trying to use my feet to steady it. There’s a deafening sound of crunching rocks. I feel like I’m going faster and faster. Then the final slope is ahead – the steepest at 41 degrees. I’m covered in grit, the end is in sight, so I decide to embrace my fate. I put my feet back on the sled, letting the board gather speed. I rush down the final decline in a straight, smooth line. And then it’s all over. It lasted just minutes, but felt like hours.

I later learn from Bigfoot’s radar gun that I clocked a decent 35 kms/hr. Cameron was the fastest of the day at 65kms/hr, but he paid a price for his speed, flipping his board in a dramatic spill earning him long scratches on his arms and ankles. By the time he reached the bottom, his board was broken in two.

The two German brothers didn’t reach the speeds they had hoped, but looked thrilled. “I wish I could do it all over again,” said Hans with a big grin as I took a photo of him and his brother against the backdrop of the slope they had just mastered. Orange overalls unbuttoned to the waist, faces dirtied with volcanic dust, it’s the kind of photo they will be showing their grandchildren one day. 

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